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American Holly (What Time is it in Nature)

March 21, 2015

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology.

We’re just starting to see the transition from winter to spring, and although most trees are still bare, there are still plenty of evergreens that stand out among the still drab backdrop of leafless trees.  One in particular can be seen every day near the front entrance here at Prairie Ridge, the American Holly (Ilex opaca).

American holly

The American Holly is a broad-leaved evergreen tree that can reach 15 to 30 feet tall.  The bark of this holly is light gray and smooth with branches that extend horizontally.  The leaves of this plant can grow 2 to 4 inches long, and are stiff with large sharply pointed tips.  They are leathery with a smooth, green, and somewhat-shiny top side and a yellowish-green underside.  The leaves stay on the branches for two to three years, upon which they will fall in the spring as the buds begin to emerge.  Blooming occurs from April to June with small greenish-white flowers.  As with most other hollies, the American Holly is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants, however it can be difficult to determine the gender due to the fact that a newly planted holly can take anywhere from 4 to 7 years to flower.  After flowering, the female plants will produce the characteristic bright red berries, called drupes.  These drupes are about 6 to 12 mm in diameter and contain about 4 seeds each.  The berries will persist well into the winter, acting as an important food source for many birds and White-tailed deer.

American Holly grows well in moist forests of the eastern United States, and can be found as far north as Massachusetts, south to Florida, and west to Texas.  The most suitable sites for this holly are moist with slightly acidic, well-drained soils.  This tree can tolerate the shade, but does best in direct sun.

In addition to the food source that the holly berries provide to wildlife, the American Holly has been a popular symbol and is often used for decorations during the winter holiday season.  The wood of the American Holly is also used for various specialty items such as veneer, cabinet inlays, handles, and even piano keys (when dyed black).  The nectar makes great honey as well.

If you would like to check out an American Holly here at Prairie Ridge, look no further than our front door!  You’ll see an example of this great evergreen just inside the entrance gate behind the kiosk.  It’s one of the only trees that has green leaves right now, so you can’t miss it on your next visit.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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